Controversy over a proposed crematory is heating up in South Burlington. Opponents claim that smoke and toxic fumes from the facility will adversely affect their suburban neighborhood on the edge of Williston. But state environmental officials and a funeral consumer advocate call such fears unwarranted and overblown. They point out that nearly all of the crematories in Vermont — including the Adirondack-Burlington Cremation Service, which has operated at 75 Allen Road in South Burlington since 2005 — are problem free and go virtually unnoticed by the public.
On May 17, more than two-dozen residents aired their concerns at a meeting of the South Burlington Development Review Board. Many said that if a crematory and funeral home is allowed to do business in a 5000-square-foot vacant industrial building on Meadowland Drive, the operation will have a detrimental impact on public health and, ultimately, decrease property values.
Among the opponents is Peter Plumeau of Knoll Circle, whose home near Butler Farm off Hinesburg Road is part of a suburban development several hundred yards from the proposed crematory. His newly launched Facebook page, “Stop Meadowland Drive Crematorium,” has already garnered 58 members.
Plumeau says he’s against the project because he claims state and federal regulations governing crematory operations are “fairly minimal.”
“This is kind of a strange place to put a crematorium,” he notes. “You certainly wouldn’t put a paper mill there.”
Plumeau also points to a dearth of credible research and information on crematory emissions. Of particular concern, he says, are potential mercury emissions from dental fillings and medical devices, such as pacemakers. Last week, the National Institutes of Health added formaldehyde, which is used in embalming fluid and treated wood such as the kind used in caskets, to the federal government’s list of known carcinogens.
The crematory’s developer, O’Brien Brothers Agency of South Burlington, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But the group the may have an unlikely ally: Josh Slocum is executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Burlington, an industry watchdog group. His organization fields about 10,000 calls and emails each year about unscrupulous business practices on the part of funeral homes, cemeteries, mausoleums and crematories across the country.
While Slocum sympathizes with the fears of neighbors, he’s also “frustrated by the lack of knowledge” about the actual risks crematories pose. He asserts that a modern, properly run crematory is “no more of a disturbance to a neighborhood than a convenience store, and maybe even less.” In eight years on the job, Slocum claims he’s visited numerous crematories and has never once smelled noxious odors or seen black smoke.
Which is not to suggest that problems never arise. Earlier this month, Vermont’s Air Pollution Control Division issued several violations to the Ker-Westerlund & Fleming Funeral Home in Brattleboro. According to a June 2 article in the Brattleboro Reformer, state inspectors responded to repeated complaints from neighbors about visible smoke and odors emanating from the crematory’s smokestack.
But such problems appear to be rare, according to data from Chris Jones at the APCD. Of the nine crematories currently licensed in Vermont, four have generated complaints to the APCD in the last 10 years. Furthermore, Jones says the air pollution concerns are easily corrected.
“While mercury may be a concern from human cremations when taken as a whole, the emission levels are highly variable, and individual units alone are not expected to exceed Vermont’s regulatory threshold,” Jones writes in an email.
Slocum gets more fired up about the rising cost of cremation, which is often chosen as a more affordable option than burial. He suggests that the Burlington area may be able to support another reasonably priced crematory — according to funeral industry stats, cremation rates are rising, with 55 percent of Vermonters now saying it’s their preferred option. But having too many actually drives prices up.
“Do we need another full-service, high-overhead funeral home that does very, very few calls and has to make up for that low volume by charging high prices? No, we don’t need that,” he asserts.
“A lot of it comes down to, we just don’t want to think about it — oooh, shivers! dead bodies,” Slocum adds. “But I submit to you, if people had any idea the amount of formaldehyde, body fluids and general poking about in the innards of dead people that was going on in that nice Victorian funeral home right on their street, they’d be a little squigged out, too.”
Paul Conner, South Burlington’s director of planning and zoning, says it’s unlikely the issue will move forward at the Development Review Board’s next meeting, on June 21. The DRB is awaiting results from an independent third party organization that has been asked to report on several technical issues related to this application, including crematory emissions.